“While modern capitalism constantly develops new needs in order to increase consumption, people’s dissatisfaction remains the same as ever. Their lives no longer have any meaning beyond a rush to consume, and this consumption is used to justify the increasingly radical frustration of any creative activity or genuine human initiative — to the point that people no longer even see this lack of meaning as important.” - Pierre Canjuers, Socialisme ou Barbarie #27

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Over the Edge of the Map

On Monday I did something stupid.  I gave notice from my stable, well-paying job.  I didn't do this because I've been offered another stable, better-paying job.  I did it because I don't want to have a job anymore.  So as of the 27th of March, I will be unemployed.

You're not really supposed to be unemployed, and certainly not by choice. Unemployment means poverty, stress, and a lower "quality of life".  Nationally, when unemployment figures go up, that's a bad thing.  Economies shrink, which is the opposite of what economies are supposed to do.  I've never really understood what "the economy" actually is - but I do know this. Economic growth good. People doing their jobs leads to economic growth. Therefore people doing jobs is good. People not doing their jobs, bad. People not even having jobs to do - even worse. It seems very simple, but I still never really got it. Do all the jobs that exist involve work that needs to be done? Many people with jobs are unhappy doing them - they do them from necessity, not from choice.  Maybe they're just in "the wrong job".  They need to go and find their "dream job".  But maybe they don't have a dream job.  Maybe their dream is not to have a job at all.  I know that's mine.

Our culture teaches us that those who can work, should.  Centuries of industrial progress, technological advancement, innovation, entrepreneurship, market capitalism and the protestant work ethic have given rise to a powerful ideology of work for work's sake.  The contempt a society, which still insists on describing itself as "Christian", reserves specifically for the poor and disadvantaged, is unique in its vicious, vitriolic power.  Almost anyone in receipt of state support today - unemployed, immigrant, mentally ill - can be labelled a lazy scrounger, a parasite, a burden.  The latest "conservative" (a tellingly honest term, all things considered - what, really, is it that they want to conserve?) government is renowned for its unprecedented levels of cuts to what were once considered essential public services.  As the welfare state crumbles, the fanatical worship of work for work's sake remains.  What was once known as "unemployment benefit" is now "jobseeker's allowance".  "Incapacity benefit" and "disability living allowance" are being  replaced by "universal credit" and a "personal independence payment".  The bureaucratic process is as obfuscating as it ever was but the change in language is clear: either you have a job, or you look for one.  If you can't find one, but are, in theory, able to do one, then that's essentially your fault.  The state owes you nothing.  If you really, really can't work, because you're so severely disabled, or terminally ill perhaps - well, OK then, you don't have work, and the state (with reluctance that grows as fast as a South East Asian economy) - will provide for you.  Everyone else, though, is just making excuses.  Not only should you work, you must work.

And not only must you work, you must want to work.  You must "follow your dreams" and "find your passion".  Assuming of course that your dreams and passions concern only the already available options.  Take a look at any job website.  Employers wants applicants with "the passion to be the best and driven to identify potential sales opportunities and meet sales targets", or who "have excellent knowledge of debt solutions/financial management".  If you've ever applied for a job, you'll have read thousands of sentences like this.  These are taken from the first page of results for all available jobs in my area, posted on the first job search website google found for me.  Of course, these are sentences written by human beings, even though no human being actually talks like that - and even though no human being really exists with the passion for identifying new sales opportunities.  They may be motivated to spend their time in such a way, but the word "passion", if it's to mean anything, does not apply here.  Another advert from the same page boasts: "You'll never find yourself bored or twiddling your thumbs on the till as a store assistant".  I am 100% certain that whoever wrote the sentence knows that it is not true.  Yet all of these jobs will probably be filled.  At the interviews, the successful candidates will convince the panel of their passion for identifying sales opportunities, or for scanning barcodes, but of course, they will be lying.  The panel will know they are lying, and will offer them the job anyway.

None of this is to say that there is no such thing as interesting, satisfying and worthwhile work.  It's just that most of the work being done, by most people most of the time, is none of those things.  Approximately a million people in the UK work in supermarkets. Another million work in call centres.  Many, many others work in warehouses, slaughterhouses, factories, various kinds of of "service industries".  Almost all of this work can, and may well soon will be, done by the machines the people who don't have to do this sort of work are inventing.  Almost none of the people doing this work now are doing it because they want to (perhaps they'd rather be inventing machines to do the work for them, but have neither the time nor energy to do so).  Certainly nobody does these jobs because they are passionate about them.  But for all the diversity of "opportunities" on the "job market", in no real sense is there such a thing as choice for most people.  Most of us have passions for things that if we devoted the time and energy to them that we do to our jobs, would probably render us destitute within months.

So we work, and when we work, we earn money.  We need money, to buy food, pay our rent or mortgage, support a family or pay the bills. We also need it to buy things like 4k curved screen televisions, smartphones, plane tickets or shares in undervalued, promising biotech startups. So even if the things we can buy with money aren't always necessary, strictly speaking, money itself is necessary. Money is freedom.  But in order to accumulate money, you need to work, and this involves giving up another aspect of freedom - time. Work is time given in exchange for money, another kind of freedom. So the next question becomes, which is more valuable, money or time?

I have decided that the answer to this question is time.  This isn't new information.  Religious and philosophical traditions have taught for millennia that material gain is the road to spiritual stagnation, that our time in earth is short (though to be fair, that's less true than it used to be, but that makes the question of how we use our time all the more important).  We all accept to a greater or lesser degree that money can't buy happiness - that the things in life that really matter can never be bought.  So why don't more of us do anything about it?  That's something I want to explore, and the best way to do this, it seems, is to experiment on myself.  I'll be paid my last wage, perhaps fittingly, on the 1st of April.  I have enough money saved up to live on for the next 3-4 months after that.  That's time.  Time to think, to do, to be and to live.  To work out what to do next.

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Please follow along, share, like, +1, and all that sort of thing.  While this is going to be a very personal journey for me, I know it's not something I can do alone.  Looking for a new way to live involves finding new ways to interact and share with people.  I welcome and appreciate all comments, criticism, thoughts and ideas you may have.